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Feeling like an outsider, Jonny Sun turned to performance, comedy and Twitter—eventually channeling his thoughts into Jomny Sun and his signature Aliebn, and now his beautifully, happily sad book, “Goodbye, Again.”

Design Matters: Jonny Sun

Design Matters: Jonny Sun

ARTIST / WRITER

5.7.21

Jonny Sun / humor / performance / comedy / writing / illustration / Twitter

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

Here are a few things to know about Jonny Sun: Jonny is spelled without an ‘h,’ he’s Canadian, he has a master’s degree in architecture, and he’s a doctoral candidate at MIT. But that’s not all, not even close. In 2017, he published an illustrated novel called Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, then he illustrated a book written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. In 2018, he collaborated on an interactive multimedia installation titledoThe Laughing Room. And finally, he just released a brand-new book, Goodbye, Again: Essays, Reflections, and Illustrations, which we’re going to talk all about today. Jonny Sun, welcome to Design Matters.


Jonny Sun:

Thanks so much for having me, Debbie.


Debbie Millman:

Jonny, I understand that you posted an app idea for a dog-walking service, where a dog shows up at your door, and you have to get out of the house and go for a walk with the dog. How’s that working out for you?


Jonny Sun:

Oh, I feel like I posted that as, mainly as a joke, as a fun, throw away idea, but I—


Debbie Millman:

As a pet mother, I can tell you that I think it’s a great idea.


Jonny Sun:

Oh, great. I mean, I thought it was a great idea too. I hope someone saw it and is inspired to make that, but I tweeted that at a moment in my life where I was in a depressive episode, and that was a fun way to talk about my inability to leave the house or get out of bed, and I thought like, Oh, if only.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, I’m sorry to bring up a bad memory.


Jonny Sun:

Oh, no, it’s great.


Debbie Millman:

But I do think there’s something really true about it. There are times when I don’t go out of the house other than to walk my dog.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah. And I thought, like, “If only a dog could show up at my doorstep and give me that excuse as well …”


Debbie Millman:

Time for a walk, trick or treat. Jonny, your parents immigrated from China to Calgary, Canada, in the 1980s, and then you all moved to Toronto when you were 11. Your parents were both medical researchers and PhDs. Did you grow up in a very academic environment?


Jonny Sun:

I feel like, I would say I grew up in a very supported environment. I think my parents … I’m stuttering a bit because I feel like, I wonder what it means to grow up in an academic environment specifically, but I feel like I grew up reading a lot, and every time we’d go somewhere, my parents would somehow find a new book for me to read or get me a book that I wanted, or books were a constant thing that was in our house and that I was constantly consuming. My parents also put me in music lessons and art classes, and also had the afterschool like math and science workbooks, but it really felt like a very holistic kind of supported childhood.


Debbie Millman:

What were you like as a child?


Jonny Sun:

Oh, that’s a good question. I feel like, I don’t know if my answer would be the same as what other people would say. I feel like that’s the hard part of answering a question like that. I feel like I was very precocious and energetic, but also quiet and shy. I loved art and drawing in particular, and was always drawing and reading, but then that also somehow, I think, fed into maybe like a more internally focused life than an externally focused one in a way. But I think as I grew up, I got, in a sense, more and more reserved and quiet.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said that you think your feelings of being an outsider and not able to connect, that they come down to you as an Asian Canadian and not really feeling at home anymore. And you’ve written about how, by the time you got to high school, you felt virtually invisible. You felt that you evaporated in groups and never spoke in class. How did you manage through that?


Jonny Sun:

It’s interesting because it feels like, wow, that is true; I also have memories of high school that were deeply social, and I had very deep and personal, like close one-on-one friendships with a few people. I feel like I wasn’t very good at the group thing, but I was really good at the one-on-one friendship thing, almost like the therapy friend thing that I write about in my book, which is much more focused on one-on-one and conversation and listening and sharing feelings and secrets and stuff. But definitely in high school, there was that feeling of outsiderness.


Jonny Sun:

A lot of it was, I think, mediated by the fact that I moved to Toronto, and that the city I grew up in was no longer the city I was living in, and there, I felt like a pretty deep sense of displacement or disconnection, and I think that led to a feeling where I was like, “This is not the city I grew up in. I’m trying to figure this out as I’m also expected to be a person and grow and make friends.” And so I think that really contributed to that feeling of loneliness and quietness in high school. But I will say that I also made a decision in grade nine.


Jonny Sun:

I was enrolled in all the usual core classes, but then I saw that drama class was an option. And I was a voracious movie and TV person at that point, and my parents had taken us to the Blockbuster every weekend, and we would rent. That was like my film school early on, that every week I’d get to watch four or five movies that I chose, with very little parental oversight, which was great. But I was interested in film and acting, and writing, and directing, and all those things, and I saw that drama class was an extension or a way to connect to that in a sense.


Jonny Sun:

And so, my one step that I’m very proud of myself for taking as a ninth grader was saying, “I’m terrified of speaking out loud or being seen, but I’m going to take this drama class.” And it really opened up a creative side of me that I’m very grateful for.


Debbie Millman:

You say that when you enrolled in that local drama class, that you did this to try and change your fate.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

And I love that, that sort of very intentional, “I know this is going to be excruciating, but I’m going to do it anyway.” But I was wondering when I read that, I was wondering, what did you think your fate was at that time that you were trying to change?


Jonny Sun:

It’s interesting, I’ve been thinking a lot more about this, about the identities that society tries to box people into, and kind of like what it means for an external source to define you in ways with more pressure than perhaps an internal personal definition could exist. I mean, Toronto is like a very kind of Asian city, and definitely in my high school I had a lot of Asian friends. And there was kind of like the in-joke among the Asian kids at school. It was like, “Oh, we’re going to all take the Asian six pack,” which was biology, chemistry and physics, and then calculus, advanced linear algebra and geometry, or something like that. Three math classes, three science classes.


Jonny Sun:

And I ended up doing that, but at the same time, I also thought, like, You know what? Drama feels like it’s not within those confines or within that definition, and this is something I’m legitimately interested in. And that ended up becoming a place where I found a lot of really close friends that I still talk to today.


Debbie Millman:

I understand that acting and hanging around with actors gave you what you refer to as permission to perform the way you wish you could be.


Jonny Sun:

Ooh. This is cool. Where are you getting all of this information? This is awesome.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, that’s all things you’ve said, and I love them, and I felt like they just felt so true and authentic to me because I also was a drama kid in high school, and it gave me that same sense of freedom and a sense of being bigger, part of something bigger than I was on my own. And so, I was really, really curious, what permission you felt that gave you.


Jonny Sun:

It feels like in drama class, and I think, by extension, sort of like being in community with like actors and performers and creative people and theater people, it feels like there is that fostering of a space of trust and a space of community, and a space where you are allowed to be whoever you want to express yourself as because you’re surrounded by all these people that are doing just that. But back in ninth grade, there was that element of, I think I credit my drama teacher a lot, Victoria Dawe at Northern, in Toronto, for creating this space that felt very trusting.


Jonny Sun:

There were kids from all different cliques; there were the jocks, and a few math kids like me; there was everyone, all from throughout the school. But in this black box theater, we were part of one community.


Debbie Millman:

It’s interesting, in my high school, the jocks never were a part of the theater clique. Jonny, when did you start collecting joke books?


Jonny Sun:

Oh, that was when I was a kid. First, for whatever reason, that felt like the type of book that showed up at every garage sale, like “101 Jokes About Football,” or like “101 Space Jokes.” I still can remember the shelf of used books there, and they’re all very thin, but just collections and collections of all these different kinds of books of one-liner jokes. They were all probably terrible jokes, but when you’re a kid, you’re just like, “Oh, this is …” That was one of my introductions to joke structure and humor, and the very structure of a joke of the setup and the punchline. But yeah, that was always the joy for going to a garage sale of like, “Oh, let’s see if there are any books that are joke books that I don’t have yet.”


Debbie Millman:

Is it true that as you developed your sense of humor, you started to give every presentation you had in your biology and English classes as comedy sketches?


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, would I love to see footage of that.


Jonny Sun:

Oh, man. There was one I remember. This was as I realized I was interested more and more in writing comedy and writing plays, and writing little sketches and stuff that I started doing that through kind of drama and through playwriting class, and started reading this playwright that my drama teacher introduced me to called David Ives. His work is very short, kind of surreal, absurdist, humorous plays. And that was like, it was a lightning bolt for me of like, “Oh, I didn’t know you were allowed to do this.” And I remember he has a play called The Death of Trotsky, which is all about Leon Trotsky dying over and over again in different scenarios, and there was sort of like a surreal Groundhog Day loop associated with that, but there was a little bit of a spark in my head of like, “Oh, you can just like take subjects and put them through this filter or through this machine of story, and suddenly, you have a story that’s also about the subject.”


Jonny Sun:

And so I started doing that for like … in biology class, I think there, I did a sketch. I don’t even remember what the sketch was about, but it was about meiosis, I think, and mitosis, and cell splitting, but I think there was a genie involved, I think there was like, I got one of my close friends who was very much—he became a doctor—very much into science and research and stuff, but I got him to play the genie, and it was really fun for me. And the best part was that my biology teacher at the end gave us a good grade because she was like, “Well, you included all the stuff that you needed to include in the presentation.


Jonny Sun:

“It was just not like a PowerPoint presentation, it was a play, but you got it all there, so I have to give you a good grade.”


Debbie Millman:

Now, initially, your journey in theater and comedy ended with high school, as your parents wanted you to do something more secure, especially given how good you were at math.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

What did your parents want you to do at that point in your life?


Jonny Sun:

It was interesting because the more I think about it too, the more I realize it wasn’t just about what my parents wanted me to do, but I was also caught at a crossroads of what I wanted to do, where I was. For as much fun as I had, and how invested I was in theater and playwriting and drama, I was also, I think, equally as excited about and invested in the maths and the sciences, and that expressed itself as the thought of going to engineering school. And I just couldn’t figure out how to make up my mind about it. And two conversations I remember for having to make that choice was I asked my mom about it.


Jonny Sun:

She took me through the thought process of like, “Well, what do you want to be?” And I didn’t really know, but I said, “Maybe an engineer, maybe a writer or an actor or a performer.” And then she said, “Well, think about the engineers that you know, and they all had to go through engineering school, but then think about all the writers and the performance and the actors that you look up to, and how many of them necessarily went through theater school to get to where they are.” And through talking about it, she helped me realize that if I went to theater school, I cut off the path almost completely to be an engineer, which isn’t necessarily true, but it felt that way. But if I went to engineering school, there was still an option that I could pursue kind of that creative writing life afterwards or during.


Jonny Sun:

And then I also talked to my drama teacher, and her perspective was like, “Listen, if you can live without wanting to be a writer, you should do that because writing is a stressful, hard life. It will torture you. It is a very difficult kind of mental process to constantly live as a writer. And so, if you can do it, and the inspiration to write or the desire or the need to write doesn’t come back to you, then you’re free in a way. But if you try to do it and realize, ‘Oh, no, I still have that compulsion,’ then it’s going to find you, and then you’re going to end up wanting to write, and you are going to end up writing regardless.”


Jonny Sun:

And so both of those conversations felt very freeing, and so I thought, OK, I’ll go to engineering school. And then as it turns out, while I was there, I found out that the engineering school I chose, which was the University of Toronto, the department there of engineers also put on a comedy show every year, which was a perfect thing for me.


Debbie Millman:

The Venn diagram of your life.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, exactly, and it turns out like the Venn diagram for the engineers who also were interested in sketch comedy was very small, the overlap was tiny, but it was there that I met a lot of my people, it felt like. That’s where I met my girlfriend who then became my wife. And yeah, that felt like a really special convergence.


Debbie Millman:

After graduation, you continued on to the Yale School of Architecture, where one of your professors stated that your drawings had a very distinct sensibility. They were more Marimekko than Michelangelo. What made you decide to go on and get a master’s degree in architecture? Did you think at that point you might be an architect?


Jonny Sun:

I thought about it; I think I had like an idealized version of what architecture was when I applied to architecture school. And I certainly had an idealized version of like what an architect does as I was entering into that field. For me, the biggest thing was, here I was at the end of engineering school where I still had a deep passion for engineering, especially for structures and structural analysis, and I learned all about bridges and the designs of bridges and how they reflect the physics of bridges. And at the same time, I was also still interested in theater and playwriting and drama, but architecture to me represented a combination of those, where you needed that kind of like structural brain as well as a creative and artistic brain, and so, I thought that would be like a cool …


Jonny Sun:

I also had heard it described as sort of like art school, but with a little bit more engineering involved. And I don’t know how true that description was, but it was more of a hope that architecture would be the thing that felt like it combined those two things.


Debbie Millman:

While you were in architecture school, you began to tweet at least one joke every day.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

However, your first tweet, on March 26th, 2009, was simply a statement, and you stated, “Japanese money looks so badass.”


Jonny Sun:

That’s right. That was—


Debbie Millman:

It was such a random first tweet, “Japanese money looks so badass.”


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

When and why did you turn to jokes?


Jonny Sun:

That’s a great question. OK, about the first tweet, that was 2009, you said, that was during engineering school. I think at that point, Twitter had just come out, and it was like the joke that everyone said, or the joke that I always said, it was like, it’s like Facebook, but it’s just the status update part of Facebook. And that’s how all my friends used it; that’s what we thought it was, of like, the joke about like, “Oh, I’m eating a sandwich now,” or like, “Just watch this movie, thought it was pretty good.” That was what we were doing.


Jonny Sun:

But the reason I started tweeting jokes on Twitter in architecture school was that, in engineering school, I had that sketch comedy group and I was also doing Second City and writing and found some friends at the Victoria College Drama Society that I performed and wrote with and stuff, and basically all those kind of creative communities I had no longer access to when I moved to the U.S. and when I moved to New Haven. So, I thought like, “OK, I’ll turn to the internet to do this,” where on Twitter, there were people who were telling jokes and it felt like there were like creative circles and really interesting kind of poets and writers and artists who were also just telling weird jokes and writing weird shortform poems and things, and I was like, “I’ll do that because that feels like a community I can participate in from anywhere.”


Debbie Millman:

You said that you initially did this to keep your comedy brain sharp. And I understand that you thought Twitter was funny in a way you didn’t know you could be funny.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

And I’m wondering if you could share what that funny was like for you.


Jonny Sun:

Well, because a lot of kind of the comedy stuff I’d been doing in Toronto and in college was performance-based sketch comedy and plays and theater and stuff, and I think all of that confirmed to me that I don’t think I’d ever be able to be a performer. That I had so many friends who were incredibly talented performers, that they knew how to be on stage and use their body and their voice as an instrument in a way that I didn’t and that I still don’t; I don’t feel like I totally have control over myself and the way I speak out loud in real time and the way I inhabit space, I guess, but my friend, I had some friends who were amazing at that and it made me feel like, OK, I don’t think I could be a performer, but I’d love to be a writer, and I’d love to … My thought was like, I’d love to write for them, and that’d be amazing.


Jonny Sun:

And then when I was on Twitter, Twitter is not performance, right? Twitter is writing and reading. And I think particularly what was interesting about Twitter was, there was so much play with like voice and with character that most of the people that I followed that I thought were doing interesting things were not tweeting as themselves, they were tweeting as like a dad who loves coffee, or like—


Debbie Millman:

God.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Shit My Dad Says.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, exactly. There was stuff like that that felt like there was like a layer of performance involved with it, but the performance still ended up being something that was a written thing. So, it was different from “101 Jokes About Football,” and it was different from sketch, and it was like performance but through writing, that I really got excited by.


Debbie Millman:

You said that part of your working theory on comedy and maybe all art is that it’s supposed to feel like an inside joke, but you’re supposed to try to get everyone to feel like they’re in on the inside joke. And I’m wondering if you still feel that way. And if so, how do you go about doing that?


Jonny Sun:

I still believe that it should feel like an inside joke. I don’t necessarily know if it’s possible for everyone to feel like they’re in on the inside joke, but I do like the idea of being generous with who you extend that welcome to. One of the things that I am thrilled with in both my humor writing and in my non-humor writing is when people say, like, “Oh, I thought I was the only person who felt this way,” or, “I didn’t even know that I felt this way,” or, “I didn’t know you could express this in words.” That’s what I appreciate with humor, about humor, is the feeling that like someone could tell a joke, and suddenly, we’re all friends. Right?


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Jonny Sun:

Everyone in the audience is friends with the person telling a joke and with each other because we’re all—


Debbie Millman:

United in shame.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, exactly. And I think shifting as the person who is the one writing the joke or writing the thing, there’s also something I didn’t realize until I started doing it, that the connection also extends that way too, of like, I’m writing about something that makes me feel lonely, and when other people understand that feeling as well, suddenly, I’m sharing a thing with someone else; I’m no longer just isolated in this feeling.


Debbie Millman:

While you were honing your comedic skills, you initially wanted to keep your identity a secret, because you were afraid of the harassment that you might receive as a Chinese Canadian doing comedy.


Jonny Sun:

Sure.


Debbie Millman:

Once people knew it was you, did you experience any vitriol or bullying?


Jonny Sun:

Yeah. I wish I could say I didn’t, but yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Me too.


Jonny Sun:

… When I started really writing humor on Twitter, I—first of all, everyone I was following was also writing under anonymous accounts and like different characters and stuff—and my thought was like, OK, I just moved to the U.S. I feel pretty alienated, so, I’ll just quickly draw a little alien cartoon. And then I kept my name because Jonny Sun sounds like a pen name anyway, and especially tied to an alien, I mean, you’re like, “All right, yeah, it’s an alien, it’s the sun, it’s space-themed,” and then after the book came out, when I changed my profile picture basically to a picture of my face, there were tweets that were like, “When did I follow this …” slur for an Asian person, or people would just use racial epithets and stuff.


Jonny Sun:

But for the most part, and the thing I want to focus on is that there was also a real sense of joy and community in being more of myself online, in the sense that there were people who sent me essays they had written when they found out I was Asian, and they were Asian too, and they had written things of like, “Oh, I’d never had a person who did the stuff that I was interested in to look up to who looked like me.” And there were people who said that they cried when they realized, which was really touching in the sense that if you looked at the kind of broad Twitter comedy landscape at that time, it was very rare. I think I overlooked the harassment and the bad stuff because there was a lot of joy and nice things that came out of that.


Debbie Millman:

Well, one of those things was your first book, Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, which is a beautifully illustrated story about a sweet and lonely alien sent to observe Earth, and while here, he meets all sorts of characters that have different perspectives on life and love and happiness, all while learning to feel a little bit better about himself. And you named the alien Jomny, which was also the name of the author. You changed your name for the book, you used the same name, Jomny, J-O-M-N-Y. Why Jomny?


Jonny Sun:

This was kind of an extension of like the alien thing on Twitter, where one of the things that I loved about Twitter was the idea that you could really create a sense of character and then create a sense of voice just through text. And so, when I was like the alien character on Twitter, there was a fun in doing these typos to create a sense of like, “Oh, whoever’s typing this is imperfect, is making mistakes, but is not too self-conscious about their mistakes that they’re going to try to fix it and make everything perfect,” that the mistakes are going to just stay there. And something I got really excited about and zeroed in on was making sure that the typos and the grammatical errors that I was doing on Twitter were not associated with sort of like making fun of any accent or any sort of existing kind of grammatical error that people could make.


Jonny Sun:

Growing up as an Asian writer, I also am very aware of the ways people can use grammar—


Debbie Millman:

As a weapon.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, as a weapon, exactly. And I also grew up correcting my parents’ academic papers. And so I was very careful not to do anything that could be read as like making fun of English Second Language speakers or people learning English for the first time, and I really focused in on the idea, like the keyboard-based typos of like the thing, the reason Jomny, J-O-M-N-Y, is because I got really excited about the ‘N’ key, and the fact that next to the ‘N’ key on the keyboard are the letters ‘B’ and ‘M.’ In normal people’s tweets, that typo exists, where instead of an ‘N,’ their thumb accidentally hits one of the keys next to it, and so I really focused on that where like, Jomny, the ‘M’ is there because it’s an accidental ‘M’ next to the ‘N.’


Jonny Sun:

And then I extended that to the title, Everyone’s a Aliebn, where there’s a ‘B’ next to the ‘N,’ because that’s also like a thumb error. Yeah, that was kind of the play that I was doing there.


Debbie Millman:

How did you develop Jomny? Did he come fully formed? Did his attributes as a character evolve over time? Talk about the way in which he came to life.


Jonny Sun:

The bio that I had on Twitter was, “Alien confused about human language,” and my head canon for that was that human language was like emotion and was like the ways to interact with people. So, this alien who primarily is confused about learning what emotions are, and this journey of getting to know people and learning these kind of deep human feelings and thoughts and anxieties and emotions. I think that was tied to a personal awareness of my emotional kind of identity, and the emotion that I was going through at the time, and especially as I was focusing on the book. I was also learning more about my anxiety and my depression and my mental health, and I started seeing a therapist, and I started talking to my friends about it.


Jonny Sun:

I feel like the thesis of the book is sort of like, if you are able to be open with yourself and with other people, then it helps other people open up and then you can connect with people better. And so that idea of like “everyone’s an alien and you’re an alien too” really means like, yeah, let’s all share in our confusion about the world, and together, we can find community.


Debbie Millman:

One of your book blurbs stated, “Read this book only if you want to feel more alive.” Do you remember who stated that?


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, I’m looking at it at the back of my book. That was—


Debbie Millman:

Cheater, cheater. Hey.


Jonny Sun:

I know. I have my books right here. Yeah, that was Lin-Manuel Miranda.


Debbie Millman:

So, you first met face-to-face backstage at Hamilton, after which Lin tweeted, “I met Jomny Sun, it’s a goop night.” How did Lin first become aware of your work? How did you end up backstage at Hamilton? Give us all the details.


Jonny Sun:

I still don’t actually … you’d have to ask Lin how he realized who I was. At some point, I had followed him forever, I had followed him since In the Heights and since when I had the chance to direct the sketch show from college. It was just a musical and sketch show, and the musical element was we took existing musical numbers and rewrote them to be about like engineering and student life and stuff. But I ended up using two songs from In the Heights and rewrote all the lyrics, these like very dense-layered rhyme schemes to be about engineering life and student life and stuff.


Jonny Sun:

But I had been a fan of his forever, I had followed him forever. I think I tweeted at him a few times, but at the same time, I was just doing my thing and writing, and at some point, he just followed me back and we just started being friends on Twitter, the way that that phenomenon feels like it naturally happens magically sometimes, and then I don’t remember how I ended up seeing Hamilton. I think I was going to be in New York anyway for something, and I messaged him, and he said, like, “Oh, there’s like, we save the standing room seats at the back sometimes and I’ll make sure you get one.” And I think that’s the first time that I saw Hamilton.


Jonny Sun:

And then afterwards, I waited for him at the line outside the theater, and he said hi, and we crossed the street and got a slice of pizza and hung out for the first time.


Debbie Millman:

You then illustrated Lin-Manuel Miranda’s book Gmorning, Gnight!, which was a collection of Lin’s morning and evening tweets. Talk about how that book came together and what it was like to collaborate with Lin.


Jonny Sun:

It was a phenomenal experience. Lin had been doing these tweets and it was a regular practice for him.


Debbie Millman:

Yes. I love those tweets.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, me too. And I think more and more people had tweeted him and said, like, “Can you please turn this into a book?” And I remember, he tweeted out at everyone, kind of being like, “I’m thinking about this, but I’m not sure.” And I saw that and I texted him and I said like, “I have thoughts.” I have now done a book that ostensibly was kind of like based on Twitter, but not really, but had like, was blurring the line between Twitter and the book. And one of the things I said was like, “For me, the drawings in Everyone’s a Aliebn were really important because it was something that you could see with a book that didn’t make sense to me as like a web comic or something that you could post online.”


Jonny Sun:

And so I talked with him for a bit, and he was like, “Great, I was thinking about drawings too and I was wondering if you would be interested in illustrating.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, absolutely. I wasn’t trying to pitch myself for this, I was just giving you my thoughts. But yeah, that sounds amazing.” And the process of doing the book was cool. There was a third person who worked on the book with us, her name was Cassandra Tidland, and she compiled a bunch of Lin’s tweets, and she was the one in charge of curating the thread of them and choosing which ones. And then the process of illustrating them … I spent a couple of days with Lin at his home, we hung out and I spent the days asking him about the context for every single … it was like a long-form podcast interview.


Jonny Sun:

I wish we got the thought to record it, but it really was me going through every page, being like, “When you tweeted this, Do you remember what day it was? Do you remember what time of your life this was? Do you remember what you were talking about?” Because some of them are a little more abstract, some of them are a little more cryptic, and he had an answer for every single one. From his answers, I suddenly had all this material to go off of. And the illustration process was trying to be really specific about Lin’s life. And I always think of it as like a portrait of my friend in a hundred drawings, where none of the drawings are of his face, and so it was a lot about like objects that were important to him, or places, or settings, things that were important to his kids, stuff like that.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, it’s sort of a nonrepresentational self-portrait.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, exactly. And yeah, my hope is that people can see the drawings and feel like somehow they know Lin a bit better, or people who know Lin already can flip through them and be like, “Oh, this is like the slot machine at the bodega,” and stuff like that.


Debbie Millman:

You said that the idea of your current book, Goodbye, Again: Essays, Reflections and Illustrations, started while you were working on Gmorning, Gnight!


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

How so?


Jonny Sun:

For a while, I was just making sure I wrote down things, and like, I mean, this was a practice that I had been cultivating since before Twitter when I was trying to think of any idea could be an idea for like a sketch or a play. And then when Twitter started happening more and more, it was like, any idea could potentially be a joke or a poem or something to write. And I think I just continued maintaining that practice, and eventually I was just writing down little bits of realizations and little bits of feelings and things that I discovered about myself, the things that I wanted to remember in terms of like how to cope with loneliness or anxiety or depression. And eventually, I had a lot of that stuff.


Jonny Sun:

And the book then also made me think about kind of the idea of like, how do you do a bunch of short pieces and make them feel cohesive and make them feel like a whole? And how do you do that as a collection of essays or longer-form writing? And then my wife, who was not my wife at the time, she did notice I was writing all this stuff and I was enjoying it, and she said, “I think this should be your next book, that clearly, there’s something about, there are recurring themes and ideas through this stuff.”


Debbie Millman:

And is it true that you wrote most of Goodbye, Again on your phone?


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Wow, that’s talent.


Jonny Sun:

Oh, thanks. Honestly, the thing that makes it easier for me is that when I open up like a Word Document on my computer, suddenly, it feels too formal and it feels too scary of like, “Oh, now I have to sit and be a writer,” whereas like if I open the Notes app on my phone and jot some stuff down, that doesn’t feel like I’m writing, it feels like I’m just taking notes; it feels the same like physically as I’m like texting a friend, right? That helped a lot in terms of just like gathering ideas and figuring stuff out and not feeling self-conscious about like, I am writing a book.


Debbie Millman:

You originally wrote the book during the year you were supposed to be taking a break. And in the introduction to the book, you state this: “From this break-taking, these essays came. A year of trying to take a break became two years, then three years of writing and putting these pieces together and working on this book. And over those three years, working on this book kept me some consistent sort of company as I navigated some destabilizing goodbyes of moving out of different rooms and different apartments, and leaving different cities, and then some destabilizing hellos of trying to find ways to live in the new places I landed in.” Jonny, what was the biggest thing you learned about yourself during the process of writing this book?


Jonny Sun:

Oh, man, that’s a great question. This might just feel a little meta, but I think there’s a level of anxiety that I always carry with myself; there’s always like a level of alarm for me of like, “I’m not doing enough, I don’t know what I’m doing, people will think I’m a fraud, I’m bad at what I do.” There’s constantly that thing in my head. And I think through doing the book, it made me feel like, “Oh, all those periods in the past where I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, those all went into the book now.” So there must have been some version of knowing what I was doing back then, and it helps give me a little bit more comfort that like maybe right now, I’m also doing all right, even though it doesn’t feel like it.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, the perspective of time. Yesterday, I learned a Korean word. The word is han, H-A-N, and there’s no actual English translation, but it sort of means beautiful sadness. And it was interesting that I learned that word in preparation, completely unrelated to my interviewing you because I thought that’s the word that describes this book. It’s this beautiful treaties on love and longing and sadness and solitude, and I’ve picked a few quotes that I wanted to ask you about.


Jonny Sun:

Sure.


Debbie Millman:

In the book, you write, “You can’t outrun sadness because sadness is already everywhere. Sadness isn’t the visitor, you are.” And I was wondering if you felt like sadness was just part of the constancy of your foundation in some way.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, definitely. Even in the happiest moments, sadness exists. And so, that passage at the beginning of the book was about, can I run away from it? Or can I push it away? And then, near the end of the book, there’s a passage that I have about sadness again that’s called “Visiting Sadness,” and it flips the perspective and it treats sadness as like, as a visiting bird that will come and will go, and then you can observe, and then you can … and it’s not worth trying to keep them out because they’ll find a way in, but as they’re here, you can observe them and see these birds, and then they’ll leave eventually. So, I wanted to present like two ideas of sadness.


Debbie Millman:

Interesting that you should say that because I’m about to share two quotes with you about a topic. You write, “In the same way that sadness is always there, I find the idea of work and working comforting. It feels like I can leave everything else behind, but as long as I am with myself, I can always work. I can always do something with my time; it’s something I can always turn to.” And then in another passage, you state, “The only way I feel able to take a break is if I stay up all night working, or if I stay up from multiple nights working until I finally exhaust myself physically and mentally to the point where I am forced to stop working because I am incapable of producing any more usable work at least for a day.


Debbie Millman:

“I fear that I have learned to look forward to burning myself out like this, to love this numbed exhaustion, because it is the closest thing I can get to some form of rest. And I’m sad that this is the only way I allow myself to actually take the rest, because it is the only circumstance in which I can see rest as productive. And that resting, at this point, is the only way I can get back into working shape once again.” I feel so similarly in so many ways. You burn yourself out—I end up getting sick. It’s the way it’s for me, that resting comes when my body just forces me to stop. Talk about that, that sense of overachievement, workaholism, however we want to call it. Do you think that work helps distract you from sadness?


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, I think there’s … well, I also want to preface that I think a lot of my attitudes towards work and productivity probably come from engineering school and architecture school, and then like being a Ph.D. student and like that. And I’m still working hard to undo it, but for a long time, I was just deep into it, where I was like, I’m in it. In engineering school, I stayed up like four nights in a row and gave myself a stomach ulcer that made me miss a bunch of exams. But then I remember feeling so horrible. And then a year later, some of my friends, we were talking about working, and someone was like, “Oh yeah, did you hear that some guy was working on his bridge project so much that he gave himself an ulcer?” And like, “Isn’t that cool?”


Jonny Sun:

There was a bit of like a celebration of like, “Man, if that guy got an ulcer, I could do that too.” And they didn’t know I was that guy. And so, being in that position of going through it and knowing it was miserable, but then seeing other people really celebrate … it was shocking and terrifying.


Debbie Millman:

I think it’s just a human thing that somehow we feel more worthy if we’re doing something productive.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

I think for me, I think it comes from really deep-seated self-loathing, and that if I do this thing that makes me useful, that maybe I’m not such a waste, or something like that.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, I think that’s true. I also think about a lot of it as like, we live in a productivity culture and a culture where one of the only ways that we can argue for our own existence or we can argue our value of ourselves is through the work we create, which I think is fundamentally flawed—but it is something that we can’t escape.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Well, it’s addictive, absolutely.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said that the most productive years of your life so far have also been your loneliest. Has that changed at all now that you’re happily married and have somebody that is standing with you?


Jonny Sun:

I feel like it’s changed and I feel like I’ve done a lot of work and Elissa has helped me do a lot of work on myself and trying to understand this better, but certainly, us being together in one place during the entire pandemic has helped me really reassess my priorities, and I do not like the feeling of having to be in the same room as this person I love and not having time throughout the day to interact with her and talk to her. And so, that’s absolutely shifted my balance, I think.


Debbie Millman:

I have one last quote that I want to ask you about, and then I’d really love to ask you to read one of my favorite passages from Goodbye, Again. But this last quote is a long one. You write, “A friend asked me after an objectively good and exciting thing happened, if I celebrated it. I laughed it off with a, ‘Ha, no,’ which I still feel bad about. I didn’t mean to make my friend feel like it was a dumb question, it’s just that I’ve made the concept of celebrating anything such a foreign thing to me, because if I do, that means it’s happening, and if it’s happening, that means I can severely screw it up, and if I severely screw it up, that means it will not be happening anymore, and if it is not happening anymore, that means that everyone will know that I severely screwed up, and this all causes me to get so anxious that I feel more likely and more able to screw the thing up than I did before.


Debbie Millman:

“And so, I found that in general, it’s just easier to ignore it and just try to get through it without imagining, and then willing into existence all of the ways I can go about messing it up.” Jonny, how did you get your hands on my diary?


Jonny Sun:

Sorry, I just probably did, I took all your thoughts and probably just thought as my own ones.


Debbie Millman:

I was like “whoa” when I read that. I’m doing a little column on printmag.com about what matters to people, and one of the questions is, “how long does the feeling of accomplishment or pride and accomplishment last for you?” And so far, I think the longest amount of time for anyone that I’ve asked this question to was like five minutes. So, I completely relate to this, and I’m wondering why is it that humans have such an incapacity to feel good about what they’ve accomplished?


Jonny Sun:

Yeah. I spend my time, a lot of my time, thinking about that too. Just like as an aside, I already feel like I’m not the person who wrote the book; to me, the book was such, it existed with me for so long. And I knew that as soon as it would be published, I would feel very distant from it, and there’s a sad distance from it. I tend to, and I’m trying not to, but I tend to identify myself using the projects that I’m currently working on, that like, when I was working on the book, I could be like, “Oh, yeah, I’m an author because I’m working on this book.” Now I don’t feel like an author because I had written a book, but I’m not actively working on a new book, so, I don’t know if I can hold that label and hold that identity anymore.


Jonny Sun:

And also to understand that there’s no value in trying to compare myself to other people because we’re all different and we are all at different stages in our lives and our careers and like—


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, and that’s why we have Instagram photos.


Jonny Sun:

Exactly. So, I’m trying to really not feel like I should be doing something else. I’m trying really hard to just be like, “OK, the book came out and I can be happy with that and just sit with it for a bit.” But that’s hard.


Debbie Millman:

I hope you can do that because the book brings so much happiness to people. It’s just one of those books that is beautifully, happily sad.


Jonny Sun:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

I can’t put it in any other way. It’s han, it’s han.


Jonny Sun:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

There’s so many other things that you do that we really haven’t gotten a chance to talk about, and I just wanted to mention them because I think that you are a poly-hyphenate—you’re an author, an illustrator, a screenwriter, a playwriter, an artist, and I’d like to ask you about some of your more recent projects. You’ve also worked on Netflix’s animated series “BoJack Horseman,” the Emmy-nominated show. You worked on an art installation, as I mentioned in the beginning of the show, called The Laughing Room. Talk about The Laughing Room because that one, I think, is super special.


Jonny Sun:

Yeah, The Laughing Room was fun because what I’ve been trying to do is find a way around focusing on the things I’m studying in my dissertation and my Ph.D., which is mainly about online community and virtual place, and what it means to exist and be present in a virtual online space, whether that’s like a social media platform or whether that means like the Zoom window that we’re looking at each other with, and like what it means emotionally and psychologically. That this is a place that we inhabit, even though it’s not one that we physically inhabit. So, that’s a constant question that I’m trying to untangle and figure out with my dissertation.


Jonny Sun:

But The Laughing Room essentially is an art installation. We built a sitcom set and we put a living room set, and we put bright lights and made it feel very artificial, like you were on the set for a sitcom. And then we, me and Hannah Davis, who is a programmer and an artist, who’s brilliant, she created an algorithm that was trained on hundreds of hours of standup comedy. And essentially what the algorithm does is it listens to everyone who’s in the room, and it will decide when to play a laugh track based on if the algorithm decides if the thing they said is funny or not.


Debbie Millman:

So, it was laugh-track worthy.


Jonny Sun:

Yes, exactly. And so we created a sitcom set and we replaced the live human audience with an algorithmic one. And the joyful thing and the thing that Hannah and I always talk about, is like, it’s exciting that the algorithm isn’t perfect. The uncanny kind of imperfection of our algorithm was the point of like, it would laugh at wrong times, or it would be silent after someone told me a very obvious joke. And the question was like, does that make people uncomfortable when they’re in the space to have the knowledge that they are being observed or listened to or recorded and reacted to? And the other thing is like, how does that change your own perceptions of like, if you’re funny or not, or like who you’re performing to?


Jonny Sun:

And it was a metaphor or like an analog of this feeling that I get online all the time of like, when I’m on Twitter and I’m telling my jokes and I’m writing, how much of that is being seen by the people who follow me? Versus how much of that is going to an algorithm that’s like a middleman, that is going to determine if it should be boosted to more people, or if it should be limited in its audience. And I think as we exist in these deeper phases of social media, there’s more and more algorithmic curation and control, and this performance to an algorithm as opposed to a human audience. And so, all those questions I wanted to put into The Laughing Room and make it like a real-world example of that.


Debbie Millman:

Before we close the show, I did say I wanted to ask you if you would read one of my favorite passages in the book, and it is titled “How to Cook Scrambled Eggs.”


Jonny Sun:

Sure, absolutely. So, there’s a section in the book that’s called “How to Cook Scrambled Eggs,” and it’s essentially a series of egg recipes that tell like a story about me and my parents and what I … my childhood and my growing up. And particularly, I wanted to explore the things that I inherited from my parents. So, this first section is “How to Cook Scrambled Eggs.” “Ingredients, eggs, oil or butter, pan, heat, thoughts. Place a pan on the stove and set the heat to the lowest setting. Wait for the pan to get a little tiny bit warm, then add oil or melt butter into the pan. Meanwhile, crack eggs into a bowl and whisk them until smooth. Pour the whisked eggs into the very slightly warmed pan, and stir slowly, constantly. Keep stirring the raw egg fluid, keep stirring the raw egg fluid. Never stops stirring the raw egg fluid.


Jonny Sun:

“Stir, noting that if it doesn’t look like anything’s happening at all, that means you’re on the right track. Stir, noting that if it looks like nothing will ever change, that means you’re doing it right. Keep stirring the raw egg fluid. Stare at the eggs you’re stirring until you forget everything else. There is only the egg fluid. Watch it swirl as you stir it. Never stop stirring. As soon as you stop, the eggs will set and burn. Just keep stirring. Keep zoning into the egg cyclone until you forget that you are the one stirring it, and until you forget yourself. Let the yellow raw egg juice be what centers you. Let your mind swirl the way the raw eggy glob swirls around the pan. You’re in egg world now. Everything is egg. Stir, thinking of eggs, stir, scrambling your thoughts of eggs.”


Debbie Millman:

Jonny Sun, thank you so much for creating work that matters, and thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters.


Jonny Sun:

Thank you so much for having me, Debbie. This was such a pleasure.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Jonny Sun’s latest book is titled, Goodbye, Again: Essays, Reflections and Illustrations. And you could see more about what Jonny is up to on his website, jonnysun.com. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman